Tag Archives: kibbutz

in memory of Ursula K. LeGuin

I first came across science fiction in the 50s when studying in America. Came across those inexpensive SF magazines and paper back books with appealing covers enjoyed by a relatively small circle of readers. They offered conjecture as to the future; a future in which technology would offer solutions to many of the hardships associated with sustaining material existence. And they seemed to ask what would concern us in the era that seemed then to be just around the corner. What would have to be dealt with when we were freed of our day to day burdens that were then such a large part of maintaining our existence.

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Ursula K. LeGuin started publishing after I had left America, but she continued in the tradition of those writers and thinkers of the 50s and 60s. She challenged us to change our thinking as to the purpose and the content of human life. In her honor, I would like to re-examine one of her classic stories; a story translated to Hebrew and published in the newspaper here after she passed away a little more than a week ago. The story is called, ‘The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas’. It can be downloaded for free from the internet.

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It’s a short story which presents a version of Utopia. It describes a small city. No emphasis is put on technological inventions. Because the people there live simply. But she stresses, the people themselves are not simple. They are sophisticated and intelligent. They are happy. They have no king and no army. They have no cars because they don’t need them. There is music and sporting competition. She describes a festival, the first day of summer, and it is joyful. The one negative aspect of this utopia is an idiot child who is kept in a dirty basement, all alone and neglected. Her description of the conditions of this child’s living space are dismal and repulsive. But the young are taught that this is what has to be. That the happy lives they live are dependent on the misery of this one child.

She also tells of the those who leave the city. She doesn’t tell us much about them. Just that they leave. They leave alone, and we don’t know where they go. They seem sure of themselves. There is the suggestion in the story that they leave because they cannot bear to live in a city where even one person is treated so cruelly. It is of that I wish to speak, the people who walk away from Omelas.

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I have written in the past about my experience in kibbutz. I wanted to try living there after I had studied a bit about communism and socialism, and thought this would be an opportunity to see if the theories could be realized in real life. At the time, the Soviet Union was a cruel dictatorship, and I didn’t want to believe that this was the inevitable outcome of establishing a communist society. While on kibbutz, I fell in love with the society. But I also saw its faults. I left because my dear wife just didn’t appreciate this ideal as I did. I don’t regret that I have lived the rest of my life back here in Jerusalem. I consider myself blessed. Still the experience has stayed with me.

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My example of the paradox of ‘life in utopia’ is less dramatic than the story of Omelas. My work was being part of a team there that grew bananas. There was a fellow on the team that used to bum cigarettes off of me. As members of the commune, we both had all of our needs supplied. “to each according to his needs, from each according to his abilities”. Once a week, I would find as many packs as I used to smoke then, in the same compartment where my newly laundered clothes would be delivered. No charge. Yet day after day, sometimes saying he had run out, and most often just asking if I had a spare cig’, he would ask for one of mine. I never asked him why. But I wondered. Could be he was trying to stop smoking… or was it his way of making friendly contact? No big deal, but it made me a bit uncomfortable.

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Often, what makes everyone happy, will make someone unhappy. Everyone wants to listen to music, but one fellow prefers silence. Everyone wants a nice green lawn in front of his home, but one fellow wants the grass to grow wild, to grow knee high around his house. Sometimes the happiness of the majority can be like a poke in the eye of a small minority. That’s the way it is among people. Even the best society can’t be perfect because human beings aren’t perfect. And no matter how good, there will always be someone looking for the faults; unhappy because of the imperfections. We’re not all built the same way, neither physically, emotionally or mentally. Ask yourselves, is it possible to build a society, even with no expenses spared… even with great consideration and respect towards all… in which one person won’t stand up and yell, “you’re all a bunch of happy idiots”? And isn’t that person an unhappy individual?

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looking back

saw the founding fathers resting in their graves…
on my way out from your burial… I was in a daze
in memory of David

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There are smells, and sounds… certain places… sometimes clouds, or a certain blue in the sky that brings back old moments, memories… or emotions. One minute you’re on your way to buy a pack of cigarettes, and the next, you’re a young man on your way to work… and memories come rolling in, one after another… till those subjective visions have more substance than what you were planning to do with your day.

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I’ve never been one to revel in the joys of nostalgia. I prefer to enjoy each day as it comes, and to make the most of it. Not to give too much attention to the future or the past, but to savor the present. The library was my first home away from home. But if I visit the library today… even though that institution has lost most of its importance now that I’ve learned to take advantage of search engines and online academic facilities… still the library remains a store house of wisdom from the many different ages of man, and I enjoy it for what it has to offer me these days.

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But there’s a village in the Galilee, where years ago I tried to realize my ideals and fantasies… and where I tasted the sublime. It’s a place much like any other place. With good and bad, and all kinds of people who’ve made their homes there. Except that it wasn’t like any other for me. I chose to live there, among friends who had similar ideals to my own. It was there for me, at a critical stage of my life. I had already enjoyed the life of an adult for a number of years. I had started a family. I had made compromises and adjustments along the way. I pretty much knew what life had to offer if my luck stayed with me. And before I got sedentary or set in my ways, I wanted to try living according to my highest ideals, just to know if it could work. And to know whether the theories we kicked around in those days were practical.

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It was a time when a lot of people thought the world was on the threshold of a great social change. The youngsters who were attracting attention then, were chanting ‘make love not war’; and instead of checking just how many people could fit into a public telephone booth, there were those who chose to live in communes, to grow their own vegetables, to make their own movies, religions, and social order. Expanding one’s consciousness was considered a legitimate occupation. And tolerance and love for one’s fellow man was the spirit of the time.

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I didn’t choose a radical path. My choice was a commune which was based on traditional values. The family remained the basic building block of society. But we believed that everyone should enjoy the same income, regardless of talent or education. And that the unpopular jobs should be performed by all according to a system of rotation in which everyone did public service once every couple of weeks in order to keep things running as they should. Each person offered his work to the society according to his ability, and received according to his needs. That meant that the surgeon and the gardener received the same salary, but the invalid or madman was given all kinds of added resources in order to make his life more comfortable. Basic education was offered to all. But no one was forced to learn… or to live up to a standard that he didn’t choose. And those with special talents could develop them at the expense of the society as a whole. A friend of mine, who was an accomplished and successful writer, worked as a kindergarten teacher. And I, a scholar and a business man, grew bananas.

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The children lived in children’s houses, where they studied and played and lived life with the direction and nurture from teachers and counselors, and house mothers and fathers. They spent time with their parents every day. But they met with their parents at tea time, and learned to appreciate them around the table in social intercourse. Mother and father were not identified with punishment or demands. The time spent together was marked by friendship and common interests.

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Our leaders didn’t run for office, promoting themselves, and making promises of what they would do for the common man. They were chosen by others, and elected by common vote. And in most cases, they didn’t want the job, because it meant giving of their precious free time for the sake of the community. But usually they were persuaded to give of their talents for the common good. There was no police. Public opinion, and group pressure maintained order in our little world. Medical and dental treatment were free to all. The public spaces of our village were beautiful beyond description, cared for by gardeners who loved their work. I never saw litter. We all used to eat in a public dining room, and the food was good.

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There were flaws and weaknesses in the system, for all men and women are flawed. Many folks thought they were giving more than they were getting. There were pet peeves, and personal conflicts. There were in-groups, and outsiders. But it worked. I felt as if I’d found the garden of eden.

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This week, I went there to bury a friend. He was a good man and had lived a good life. He’d worked as a cotton grower, a tractor driver, and for many years as a skilled metal worker. He’d never asked for special consideration or a bonus. He was a modest man and didn’t stand out. But many in the community recognized his unique character and personality. His children had gone on to other places and other life styles, as many of the younger generation have done. The community has changed greatly. It is no longer a communal village.

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As I walked through the town, I couldn’t help but notice the changes. There were new roads, and parking lots. There weren’t many private vehicles when I lived there. We used to borrow a car from the car pool back in my day. The houses and gardens were more individualistic than I remembered. And the public dining room no longer caters to all comers. Nowadays, people prepare their meals at home, and children live with their parents. But as I walked along the streets and lanes of the village, I felt as if transported to a world that might still await us… a world of values that aren’t especially popular these days.

gardens on kibbutz

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I’ve written in the past about my experiences and what I learned on kibbutz; the most successful attempt I know of, to create a truly democratic and egalitarian society. I was a relatively young man at the time… this was more than forty years ago… and influenced by the many ideas that were going around in the 60s. I wanted to know if it was possible for people to live happily in a commune, where the wealth was shared, and where each person received what he needed to live a wholesome life, and contributed to the collective according to his abilities. The idea was simple. It appealed to my ideals. And there were many such villages scattered around Israel where that was actually happening.

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We had heard of the abuses of power in the communist states of eastern Europe, and in Asia. The cold war was being fought along ideological lines. In the west, communism was considered synonymous with tyranny. Was it possible that such a system could work in a free society? I felt I had to try it out. I had a family at the time; a wife and small children. I came from a rather conventional background, with the talents and the education of a typical 20th century intellectual. And so I felt that I could easily test the viability of the system on myself. Most important, I had a desire to see a better world; a world in which society was able to compensate for some of the unfair distribution of talent and physical strengths by nature.

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When I went up north to visit my friend, last week, I visited that same kibbutz where I had spent a couple of years, long ago. It was a visit that brought back memories that had almost faded away… memories of people and of situations… What had once seemed as critical and important as life itself, was barely relevant today. Many of the people I had loved and befriended were no longer part of the society now. Some had died, and some had moved away. The kibbutz itself was no longer the same society in which I had chosen to live. The people there, had chosen democratically to change the rules. There had been a process of privatization, in which individual members of the commune had been given more freedom of choice, and the right to work at whatever they wanted to do, and to own personal belongings without obligation to the collective.

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The place is still called a kibbutz, but it operates along different lines altogether. The one social characteristic that remains the same after all the time that has gone by, is that the society there is governed by a direct democracy, in contrast to the representative democracy that we enjoy today in most democratic societies. That means, that instead of being governed by representatives who are elected by popular vote, all major issues are decided by a direct vote of the entire population, or at least those who care enough to express their opinion.

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I remember that when I first arrived there, I felt as if I had landed in paradise. It was almost too good to be true. And strangely enough, after those many years… when I visited the place again, it still seemed like the garden of Eden to me. The ideas might have changed. There was a different generation of people living there. People owned their own homes or rented. The houses were more individual, many of them different from their neighbors. In many ways, it was a village just like any other in my country. But when I looked at the gardens, I felt the difference.

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The gardens are an example of integration. For the most part, the grass is not mowed like it is in most suburban neighborhoods. Wild flowers and cultured varieties grow side by side among the grasses, dotting the lawns with color. One doesn’t feel that that human order has been imposed upon nature. On the contrary, wherever you go, there are pleasant surprises. When I lived there, there was a central dining room where everyone ate. There were children’s homes where all the children lived. The children would visit their parents for afternoon tea, and then return to their children’s houses. And the parents would visit with their children in the evening. Now people make their own dinners in their own homes, and children live with their parents.

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In the old kibbutz, there were committees that decided where people would work, and all the people took part in producing those yields which the society had decided were most advantageous for the community. Now people get into their private cars and drive off to work in the morning. And these residents come home whenever their work is done. One man or woman may earn twice as much, or even four times as much as his or her neighbor. And yet, there still is a collective responsibility for the poor, the weak, and those who’re ill. For the most part, the kibbutz has turned from a communistic society to a socialistic one. People still seem happy, but they are far less involved in the community.

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working in the field

A picture from those days, some 40 years ago. I was working with my friend Mordo in the banana fields. I had chosen to work in bananas, because it was seen as hard work, and I was starting out as a kibbutznik, a little late in life. I was seen as an intellectual in a society that revered the common worker; a religious man in a community that was resolutely atheist or agnostic, and my gentle un-calloused white hands were held against me. There were reservations against book learning, and I remember a number of my fellow kibbutzniks who couldn’t help but smile when they saw volumes of texts on the subject of growing bananas on my book shelves. Wasn’t it enough to just work at it? Did I have to read about it too? But all the same, I made friends with my fellow workers, and the neighbors who lived to my right and left, and they respected my determination. I had traveled to far away places… and I could tell them stories that seemed romantic and amusing. And they could see I wasn’t afraid to work… even if I didn’t come from the same background. I could always be counted on to translate to and for the foreign volunteers, and to explain the attitudes and the cultural differences between this socialist society and the world of orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, or Jewish immigrants from the far away diaspora. Despite the many differences, I found generosity, and a noble spirit about my fellows in my adopted society.

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the community dining room, back when we all ate together

And this one day, working with Mordo, we were trimming banana leaves to make the trees grow straight and tall. And we had turned off our transistor radios that were tied to our belts, so that we could listen to talk programs and music as we worked the long day alone… and now we were talking to one another as we slowly made our way across the endless field, trimming leaves with our long wide knives of steel, which we sharpened ourselves on a wet stone. Both of us were very tired, for after an eight hour work day, we spent time with our children… and did all those things that people have to do just to keep their lives from coming apart, as responsible adults… and the night before, we had stayed up late, drinking wine, and listening to some Jazz records published in France, that he had found a month ago, while on a trip to the big city. We were talking, partially, just to keep ourselves awake despite the eroding weariness. It was hard to take. Perhaps harder for me, because I wasn’t that used to physical labor day after day… but then, he wasn’t used to staying up till midnight, drinking wine… And here we were, slogging through the muddy earth, on a damp grey day.

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a fun vehicle meant for children’s play

Strange as it may sound, we found ourselves telling each other stories of different beds we had seen. Beds we had slept in… beds we had seen in the houses of the rich… beds that our parents had slept in… and beds in the movies… and a bed in the museum which showed a re-creation of a wealthy home in the renaissance period of history. For the longest time we spoke of beds… till laughing, we realized where our conversation had lead, and why. In our immense weariness, the thought of bed had seduced our imaginations. It was the most pleasant thing to think about. And finally, straightening up from the work of trimming those fat juicy leaves, we stood face to face, in the tropical environment of the banana trees, our long knives in our hands… and looked at each other… slightly mad from being over tired… and laughed. Great laughs that brought more and more oxygen through our heaving chests to our blood stream. Oh, it was wonderful. And if any sane person had seen us at that moment, they would have, no doubt, called for an ambulance to take us straight to the insane asylum.

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so that’s the way they grow

Just a few years earlier… I had had no idea of how a banana grows in nature. I had thought of them growing individually, like peaches on a peach tree. And here I was, in a man made jungle, wielding a machete, and telling tales of fancy beds in rich people’s homes. What a crazy life this was… and how wonderful to be alive!